The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I’ve read Pulitzer Prize winners with great abandon. I’ve read 600+ page books that felt like they contained only 200 pages. But I’ve never read a 600 page Pulitzer with less pleasure than I have this highly acclaimed novel by Michael Chabon. I’m not anticipating that this post will bring many readers who agree with me, but I’m going to lay my thoughts out anyway.

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” could also be titled, “The Book That Wouldn’t End.” While the book is based on a fascinating theme of escape (who doesn’t fantasize about that once in awhile?), and is incredibly broad in its scope, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay cease to be amazing as the reader encounters either gaps in the story which can only be guessed at until verification seventy five pages later, or a segue into a character’s past which is beyond tedious.

Kavalier and Clay are two Jewish boys based on the creators of Superman: Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster. Like Siegel and Shuster, the boys sold the rights to their character, The Escapist, for far less than it would become worth.

I never knew that comic books, such as Captain America, date from the 1940’s when the world was faced with true villains and terror. “Comic books went to war before the United States did,” Chabon said…Captain America dates from, I believe, May 1941. No villain was up to Superman. Kryptonite, in a way, is a substitute for Hitler, because Hitler was the ultimate villain They fought the Japanese and demonized them, but this was what superheroes were made for.”

The first issue of Captain America features a cover which is almost identical to the fictional cover Kavalier and Clay create for their hero, The Escapist. Note that Captain America is actually punching Hitler.

This aspect of the book, that comic books were once a way to make bold statements about the war, was fascinating to me. (It makes me wonder what the purposes of Dave Pilkey’s book, Captain Underpants, might be other than to make children laugh. Is that reason enough to develop a comic book?)

Also, the theme of escape was a fascinating theme. Of course, there is the obvious escape from the persecution of the Nazis, but Chabon brought in elements of escape many people deal with on a personal level every day: escape from marriages, homosexuality, poverty, notoriety, or even reality. He did a beautiful job of interweaving comic books with personal lives with Jewish history with feats of magicians. But, he did it in a novel which became a burden to read. At least to me. Apparently, I’m the only one who feels that way.

An excerpt from Powells.com: “At the heart of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier, two cousins who forge a comic book empire in forties New York. What’s so extraordinary about Chabon’s novel is how much ground he is able to cover. Sprawling across several decades and a handful of continents — from war-torn Prague to New York City, California, and even Antarctica — Chabon’s remarkable characters provide a virtual tour through the classic themes of the human experience: good, evil, romance, friendship, longing, despair — the whole package. Like all artists, Chabon accesses the power of the universal through the idiosyncrasies of the particular. And it’s fun, to boot. Kavalier and Clay was both a critical success, receiving the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and an international bestseller, and is widely regarded as one of the best novels published in the past ten years.”

(p.s. Here’s an interesting article on the fate of Captain America which was in Yahoo! Headlines just yesterday.)